"I'd come here on the weekend, on a Saturday afternoon, hitch a ride to London. And I never liked the place."
We often come across people who'd happily never set foot in London again. We struggle to understand them. But Alford Gardner — well, we'll forgive him. The 92-year-old has shrugged off his twice-daily bingo sessions in Leeds, to make the journey down and spend a few days in a metropolis he finds far too big, far too busy.
The reason? He is one of the few remaining Windrushers — the men (and women) who came to Britain from the West Indies on the ship Empire Windrush in 1948, in search of a new life. In this capacity, Gardner is one of the stars of Windrush: Portrait of a Generation. For the exhibition, photographer Jim Grover spent 11 months exploring a 'parallel Clapham' — the Caribbean community that had been living under his nose for 30 years. In doing so, he's created one of 2018's must-see shows.
"I've got to find a Windrusher"
Gardner may not be an advocate — let alone denizen — of London, but Grover was anxious to feature him. "When I started this, I thought 'I've got to find a Windrusher', because how could you not have one in this exhibition?" explains Grover, "Finding Alford and going up to Leeds to meet him was quite special."
As the two hook up once more, amid the bustle of the Oxo gallery launch party — the clink of Wray & Nephew bottles, the final hammerings and shufflings of moveable walls and picture frames — you'd be mistaken for thinking they've known each other a lifetime. "As a photographer, what you hunger for is privileged access. That takes trust, friendship, relationships," says Grover.
Grover fell into creating Portrait of a Generation when a parishioner from his local church invited him to take photos at a Caribbean dominoes club in Clapham. He discovered a group of elderly men 'playing bones' for rounds of Irn-Bru, rum and Red Stripe, sometimes until two in the morning.
"Each story led to another story," says Grover, who went on to capture the women of Stockwell Good Neighbours; ate at huge family dinners ("It was humbling, inspiring. I was also rather envious. How wonderful to have your family come together every week"); and was allowed into one of the near-mythical 'front rooms' — of which there is a joke that it'd take a visit from the Queen AND the prime minister to get it opened up.
Grover even ended up at a Jamaican funeral in Tooting, where he captured the striking image of the bereaved daughter, Diane, pouring rum into her mother's grave. "I had no idea that was going to happen."
"It was the happiest night of me life"
Once he's had a chance to pace around, we ask what Gardner makes of the exhibition. "It's alright. Yeah not bad, not bad," he smiles wryly, letting out a lilting cackle.
He remembers Windrush, and the days leading up to it, fondly: "It was the happiest night of me life. Ohhh, what a feelin'! What a feelin'!" he says, of the evening before departing for Tilbury.
"I had a sister at a school in Kingston, and a friend of hers worked in the government office, and she got word that a ship was coming. They didn't know the name, but they knew it was coming at a certain time.
"My brother was off to Kingston in a flash to book his ticket. I couldn't do that, because I didn't have no money," Gardner laughs, "I went to my Mama and said 'this ship is coming and I have no money." she said 'ask your Papa'. He was a policeman. So I said 'Papa, the ship is coming and I have no money.' He said 'alright.'"
"It was a very good journey. We stopped at Havana, took on water. We got off at Bermuda with engine problems. Best ice cream I ever had. You could taste the rum in the ice cream. It was beautiful," he says, admitting that he still enjoys the occasional glass of rum with ice ("not Bacardi though").
In fact, this wasn't Gardner's first trip to the UK — he'd arrived here in 1944, working as a mechanic in the RAF. The welcoming locals of Leeds reminded him of Jamaica: "Lovely people."
We ask Alford about the alleged stowaways on board Windrush, and he lets out a conspiratorial chuckle: "They didn't hide," he laughs. "One of them went around asking for us to donate money for the fine.
"The lads took care of each other."
Gardner was in esteemed company too, mingling with calypsonians like Lord Kitchener, who would go on to conquer Britain with brassy tunes about the cold weather, English girls and iffy landladies. "Anything that moved, they made up a song. That was it. They made up a song..." Gardner says, rapping his fingers on the table.
"It's remarkable what they achieved here"
Throughout our chat, it's evident that both Gardner and Grover are men in demand. Gardner is interrupted mid-flow by a phone call from the BBC Today Programme, and begins to spill his life story all over. Grover, meanwhile, allows an avid early-comer a privileged first look round the exhibition; she's leaving London tomorrow, and won't be here on opening day. "Special treat," says Grover.
Yet both men play down their roles. "This isn't an exhibition about me," explains Grover, "In 20, 30 years' time a lot of this will be gone forever. That makes it an important thing to document. It's remarkable what they achieved here.
"I think cultures and traditions are really precious and important. I'd love people to go away with an appreciation of how this generation is living their lives true to their values, in the heart of south London, today."
Grover also lets on that capturing that 'magical moment' on camera — like the one depicting a set of dominoes hovering just off the table, prompted by an excited fist — involves some luck. "The frames either side are rubbish," he says casually.
As for Alford; he seems to be taking the whole thing in his stride, shrugging off any idea that he's anything special. Whenever we quiz him on his popularity, he repeatedly utters: "It's not me, it's me shadow."
The truth is that one of these men has captured a moment in history; the other is very much part of it.
Windrush: Portrait of a Generation is on at gallery@oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, SE1 9PH from 24 May-10 June (excluding 4 June). Entrance is free.